How to Succeed at Interviews: Playing the Game

How to Succeed
at Interviews:
Playing the Game
to Win
Writtle College Careers Centre
Prior to the Interview ........................................................................................ 5
Body Language ................................................................................................. 6
The Interview Itself - tactics ............................................................................ 6
More Advanced Points ..................................................................................... 9
First Level - Introductory Questions ............................................................ 10
Second Level – Competence Based Questions ......................................... 10
Third Level - Watch for the Follow Up Questions ...................................... 11
Fourth Level - Hypothetical Questions ........................................................ 11
A Note on Situational Interviews .................................................................. 12
A Note on Second or Third Interviews ......................................................... 13
Your Questions to the Interviewer ............................................................... 14
Assessment Centres ...................................................................................... 15
Other Sources of Information ....................................................................... 15
Titles available at and to take away in
the Careers Department
Job-hunting in agriculture
Job-hunting in the animal-related sectors
Job-hunting in business and general sectors
Job-hunting in design
Job-hunting in the equine-related sectors
Job-hunting in horticulture, landscape & floristry
Job-hunting in leisure and sports
Job-hunting in conservation
The Hidden Jobs Market
CV Writing
Equal opportunities
How to succeed at interviews: playing the game to win
Obtaining work experience placements overseas
Part-time and summer work
Writing jobsearch letters: playing the game to win
Prior to the Interview
QUESTION PREPARATION. Prepare a broad outline answer to the
anticipated questions. Remember many questions are simply different ways
of asking the same thing. Make a note of 3 or 4 good questions to ask at the
end - on a card if you like. See suggested questions later.
MINDSET. Think about the interview as a business meeting. Some
candidates assume the wrong role e.g. they ask all the questions, or they
behave as though it is a careers interview.
FIRST IMPRESSION. We take in 90% of our information visually – you need
to look fit and healthy and groomed (polished shoes!). Wear appropriate
dress, usual business attire is a suit. Avoid flamboyant clothes and
extravagant jewellery. Take an overcoat, a briefcase and a good quality pen
and notebook.
RESEARCH. Read as much literature as you can about the employer and
the role from websites, brochures, annual reports, job description, and recent
articles in press and magazines. Find out the likely salary range for someone
working in the position that you are applying for. Remind yourself of what the
company is looking for by re-reading the photocopy of your application form
or CV, job description and person specification (if provided). Plan your
journey and arrive in plenty of time for the interview - up to half an hour early.
Take a map - it is very easy to get lost in unfamiliar towns/places. Make sure
you know who the interview is with so you can ask for them by name.
THE DAY ITSELF. Relax yourself prior to the interview by reading a
magazine or trying a relaxation exercise such as deep breathing or stretching.
The usual duration of an interview is around 30 to 45 minutes so take a
comfort break before the interview. Some people find that washing their
hands may alleviate the ‘sweaty handshake’ effect! You are ‘on interview’
from the moment you enter the company’s premises. Therefore be polite to
everyone you meet including the receptionist, security guard or cleaner.
When meeting the interviewing staff, offer your hand and smile. Shake hands
firmly and briefly, and wait to be seated. Remember the interviewer’s name
and use it when appropriate.
Body Language
‘FACETALK’. Use appropriate body language. Keep eye contact 80% of
time, and vary your posture by leaning forward, nodding or smiling to express
enthusiasm. Avoid slouching, folding arms, fidgeting, chewing or smoking.
Be aware of the interviewer’s body language. Whether consciously or not,
successful candidates tend to duplicate their interviewer’s body language, this
is called ‘mirroring’. Watch your interviewer’s eyes for ‘shut up’ or ‘go on’
signs. Develop interest in what you are saying by varying the pitch and tone
of your voice.
ENTHUSIASM. Remember that most graduates are unlikely to be able to
offer years of experience, or the level of confidence and poise that an older
person has. Sometimes, your best strategy is simply to appear willing to learn
and hungry for the position.
CONTROL. The interview is quite a high pressure situation. Try to avoid
getting frustrated, losing your cool or showing discomfort. For those who are
inclined to gabble, it is worth bearing in mind that in successful interviews the
interviewer actually speaks slightly more than the candidate. Speak slowly most people speak too fast because they are nervous - this will also give you
time to consider your reply.
The Interview Itself - tactics
CLARIFYING. If you do not understand a question, do not be frightened to
say so. Asking for clarification also buys you some valuable 'thinking' time. It
is best not to over-use this technique. Take time to answer questions – the
interviewer will not mind if you pause a few seconds to collect your thoughts,
and structure your response.
FRAMING. In response to a question, think about two or three examples or
areas you want to talk about. First introduce the interviewer(s) to the areas
you would like to talk about. Then actually describe the incidents or examples
in more detail. This is a ‘framing’ device that you can practice in order to
improve the overall effect of your answers.
CHECKING. Check to see if the interviewer(s) want more information - ask
the interviewer(s) if you have answered her/his question. Avoid going into
unnecessary detail – ask yourself how relevant is it to the employer?
GETTING BEHIND THE QUESTION. Avoid simply taking an
autobiographical approach in response to a question. Always think, why are
they asking me this question? What are they looking for here? Try and get
behind the question, and work out the reason it is being asked.
AVOID NEGATIVES. Avoid dwelling on areas of weakness, and attendant
explanations, such as failed GCSEs or points on licence. Avoid negative
language modifiers: ‘I was only…’ ‘It was just…’ ‘I am a little bit….’ Do not
over-react initially to questions about age, race, or gender. Stress the
positives such as, maturity and experience; knowledge of different cultures; or
experience of dealing effectively with members of the opposite sex. More
generally, do not pretend to know something you do not - you will trip yourself
be asked how you meet the competencies the employer is needing for that
role. This is sometimes called criterion-based interviewing. You should be
prepared to talk about competencies such as, communication, team-working,
decision making, organising, and managing self and others. You will be asked
for examples when you have displayed these competencies in the past.
There are plenty of example questions supplied below.
WEAKNESSES. If you are asked to describe your weaknesses, it is best not
to refer to weaknesses such as, laziness, chocolate addiction, hangovers, or
a bad temper! Other ineffective answers include responding: ‘I am a bit of a
perfectionist’ or ‘I do not have any weaknesses’. OK weaknesses could
include, your need to develop language skills or broaden your experience of
industry. You could talk about former areas of weakness and what you have
done about them (for example, time management, public speaking, getting on
with people from different walks of life, or planning and prioritising). In short
acknowledge your weaknesses and show how you turned them into
CLOSED QUESTIONS. Beware of closed questions that invite a simple yes
or no response, such as, ‘have you got any experience in this area?’. An
unskilled interviewer may be leading you down a conversational dead end.
Expand on your answer by avoiding answering just 'yes' or 'no'.
EXTRA INFORMATION. Remember your application, CV, covering letter and
interview enable the interviewer to build a picture of you, your skills and
qualities and how you would fit into their organisation. Therefore, if you have
worked on a unique project (that will resonate with the employer) at university,
whilst on work experience or paid employment, be sure to include this
somewhere in your interview. If the questions they ask you do not give you
the chance to talk about the project, then as they draw to the end of the
questions, explain politely that you would like to add some more information.
When given the opportunity to go ahead, briefly talk about your project
outlining the pertinent facts that will interest the employer. It is important to
get this information ‘in’ but also be wary of time constraints as the interviewer
may have a number of candidates to see after you leave.
PANEL INTERVIEWS. You may be interviewed by more than one person,
this is called a panel interview. Try and address the whole group with your
answers, not just the one who asked you the question or the one who is
smiling and nodding.
SALARY DISCUSSIONS. If salary is discussed, try and get the interviewer to
name a figure. Talk about a preferred salary/benefits range based on your
prior salary research. Stress salary is not the only consideration. Try and
postpone discussion until you are in a stronger position i.e. once you have
been made a job offer. It is therefore a good idea to find out how and when
you can be expected to hear the result of the interview. If possible ask for a
letter to be posted.
More Advanced Points
STYLES. There are different interviewing styles. Some interviewers use set
questions and structures for all candidates, others are more free-flowing.
Some are highly formal, others very informal. Human Resource department
style varies from the technical or operational department style.
AGREEABLENESS. In successful interviews the interview flows smoothly
with few disagreements being expressed, the candidate is politely attentive
and keen. As a candidate you will be expected to be nicely behaved and
acquiescent, although you may not be expected to be like this if you get the
job. Similarly, you may need to show what a decisive and forceful person you
are, but without acting decisive and forcefully in the interview itself. Linked to
this, a successful candidate draws attention to their good qualities whilst
remaining modest and submissive.
IMMEDIACY. This is a good skill to use in interviews - ‘I am getting myself
tied up in knots here, do you mind if I start again?’.
INTEGRITY. It may seem strange to talk about integrity after all the advice
that interviewees receive, nevertheless it is important to remain true to your
key principles and values. Remember that you are also interviewing them.
HUMOUR. Try not to be so uptight that you cannot enjoy a laugh with your
interviewer. The interviewer needs to be excited about having you as a
colleague, so remember to smile.
First Level - Introductory Questions plus some of the answers, many will
be personal to you, preparation is invaluable.
These questions are designed to put you at your ease, and get you to open
up. You should not find these difficult. The most important question is:
Why do you want this job? Do your homework so that you can enthuse
about the company whilst being positive about your own skills and how
they fit the job specification.
Tell me about yourself? You can rehearse this before the interview, speak
for about four minutes and draw out key skills that match the job.
What kind of books or newspapers do you read? Be prepared for this one!
How much do you know about our organisation? Research not only the
company but their customers.
What do you think of our products/services? More research.
What are your career plans? Be honest but don’t tell them if the job is only
a stop gap.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
Why did you decide to study at X University?
Why did you choose your particular subject?
What motivates you to give the greatest effort?
What have you found the most challenging area of your course?
Do you have any absorbing interests or hobbies? Keep it brief.
What did you do in your year off? Think of positive skills that you learnt
while you were away not just the sights you saw.
We have received over 100 applications for this position, why should we
employ you? Focus on your strengths and how they match the job
Why did you leave your last job? Do not criticise your previous employer.
Second Level – Competence Based Questions
What are your strengths? Tailor this answer to skills asked for in the job
What are your weaknesses? See section above on ‘weaknesses’.
Describe a situation in which your work was criticised?
What has been your greatest challenge?
What are your main achievements to date?
When have you had to deliver information within a tight timescale?
Tell me about your team-working skills
Tell me about your communication skills
Tell me about your organisational skills
Tell me about your management skills
Tell me about your commercial awareness
Third Level - Watch for the Follow Up Questions
Tell me about a time when you had to plan for a project, task or event?
How did you monitor your progress?
Did you come up against any problems?
How did you overcome these?
What would you do differently next time?
That’s very interesting. Now give me another example of your planning skills.
What do you understand by excellent customer service?
When have you delivered this?
Have you ever had a personality clash in the workplace?
What did you do about it?
What was the outcome?
Fourth Level - Hypothetical Questions
The market for product X is going down - what would you do to increase it?
Who do you think are our major competitors, and how should we react to
You are dealing with a major supplier and their product has a fault - how
would you deal with this situation?
What will the impact of closer European integration be on our industry?
What do you think will be the next growth area within our industry?
Why are manhole covers round?
Estimate the weight of a 747?
How many petrol stations are there in the UK?
You may never get these higher level questions, but if you are applying for
work with a major, highly competitive graduate recruiter then these questions
are quite common. With these questions you are not expected to have an
immediate or ‘right’ solution. It may be best to just break the problem down
and suggest a logical approach. Show how you would tackle the problem if
you had more information.
Use a three stage structured approach based on clarification, analysis and
conclusion. Take notes if necessary. Show you are aware there is more than
one right answer. Demonstrate poise and comfort with ambiguity. The
employer is trying to see if you can think on your feet, in unfamiliar territory
and in a situation where you do not have enough facts.
Use a framework to respond to the question. Some suitable frameworks you
may be familiar with are: Pro/con analysis; SWOT analysis; supply and
demand analysis; 4 Ps framework; and Revenue and Cost Tree. Be realistic
about your proposal by showing awareness of how things really are in
organisations. Do not force fit the framework if it is not working.
A Note on Situational Interviews
This is similar to the Case Study Approach, and to Competence/Criteria
Based Interviewing. This has been used by NatWest Bank, British Airways,
ICI, Crusader Insurance, Burton group, and Carlsberg-Tetley. Candidates are
presented with a series of hypothetical questions based on what they have to
do in the job, and asked how they would respond.
Example: applicants for a sales position in an insurance company were
You have called on a broker to keep an appointment arranged by telephone
to discuss the progress of a sales campaign. His secretary tells you he is out
of the office all day. As you are leaving, you bump into the broker, together
with a representative of another insurance company, coming out of another
room. What would you do?
Effective Response: those who say they would greet the person in a warm
and friendly way, remain dignified, and make another appointment.
Ineffective Response: is to point out to the broker that you expect
appointments to be kept, and say ‘that if the same thing occurs you would
start wondering whether taking on a broker was worthwhile’ or to challenge
the broker with the secretary’s false information.
A Note on Second or Third Interviews – Remember to do as much
preparation for a second interview as for a first.
This is usually only fairly mainstream graduate employers. Each interview
serves a distinct purpose. Here are three examples.
Example one: top City marketing firm based on the experience of a recent
First interview - 2 interviewers and 2 other candidates present. The interview
was designed to gauge knowledge, experience and teamwork.
Second interview - One to one interview. To determine whether the company
likes the candidate, and considers the candidate a suitable colleague.
Third interview - Good cop/bad cop. ‘One would ask me something perfectly
reasonable about my degree course, while the other would leap forward and
say something like, ‘do you mean to say the course contained no business
modelling ? How will you be able to do this job without it !’ I felt like my
integrity was being challenged and I became quite defensive, crossing my
arms and almost arguing with him. I suspect they were testing me under
pressure - and it worked.’
Example two:
MI6 puts candidates through 7 interviews.
Example three:
Civil Service Graduate Fast-Stream interviews up to 4 times.
Interview 1 - tests intellectual capacity. Students are asked to come up with a
proposition, but often the candidate fails to develop it further. Candidates are
sometimes asked to oppose the argument they have just put forward.
Interview 2 - tests motivation, drive, determination and reliability. Candidates
may be asked what challenges s/he has met, and how s/he overcame them.
Interview 3 - tests management skills, ability and potential.
Interview 4 - a round-up of the first three in order to clarify final suitability.
Your Questions to the Interviewer
Your own questions will sound less artificial, but here are some possible
areas to explore. In the unlikely event that the interview has already
answered all your questions it is OK to simply say that you did have some
questions about X and Y and they have been satisfactorily dealt with in the
course of the interview. Do not ask about trivia such as lunch breaks, what
sort of car you will get and days off; and avoid asking a question you should
know the answer to (for example, from the literature the organisation may
have sent you).
How do you envisage my skills and achievements fitting in to the
Can you tell me about a typical day in the life of a new recruit?
What kind of training and development do employees undertake?
Will the successful candidate be working in a team?
What has happened to previous graduates you have recruited?
Who will I be directly responsible to?
When and how will I be informed about the results of the interview?
What would be the priorities for this vacancy in the first three months?
How do you see the company developing over the next two years?
More advanced questions could be:
If appointed, how would my performance be reviewed?
What would you say is the main disadvantage of working here?
What would you say is the best part of working here?
Why do you work here?
Assessment Centres
Many mainstream graduate employers use assessment centres to select
candidates. One of the best introductions is our AGCAS ‘At the assessment
centre DVD’ September 2009 available in the Careers Centre. We have
example psychometric assessments for you to gain confidence including
MBTI (Myers Briggs), - examples of
psychometric assessments. - examples of tests including GMA, FGA,
GAT2, OMQ and EIQ. - click on E-testing then Testwise and scroll down
Support Articles in the right hand margin for Practice Tests. Stretching
examples of GRE and GMAT tests often used for entry to MBA programmes. - an Improve Your Numeracy
booklet produced by the careers services at the Universities of Birmingham
and Bristol.
Other Sources of Information
These guides are available in the Careers Centre.
You’re Hired Interview – Judi James
You’re Hired Interview Answers – Ceri Roderick & Stephan Lucks
You’re Hired Psychometric Tests – Ceri Roderick & James Meachin
Useful websites: - this US site provides a detailed guide to
15 an interactive site for you to
practice your interview technique.
The Careers Department now has lots of job specific and CV related internet
links loaded on the social bookmarking tool Delicious
click on any 'tag' to search for relevant websites
Please note: the quality of web sites may vary and inclusion in this list does
not constitute a recommendation. You are welcome to arrange time with the
Careers Adviser in order to obtain further help with websites, and other
careers-related matters.
This handout is provided by Writtle College Careers Centre
Last updated December 2011. Contact the Centre for more help.
01245 424200